Two evenings to get into this weeks blog, member Andro Andrejevic took us on journey through his development as a photographer over the last couple of years and a welcome return for the Wriggly Road Show, for a fascinating hands on meeting.
As well as the club, Andro also belongs to the Dream Team photographers collective, and cited both as playing a roll in his continuing development. The value of having a team and fellow photographers to bounce ideas off (as well as light) has a value and effect of it’s own.
Certainly it was good to see that on the evening of the Wriggly Roadshow club members were interacting not only with the animals (and not just as subjects of a photograph) but with each other. Again, and talking to some of the other members who told me as much, the interaction of ideas and experience proved a strong point of the evening.
But there is one question that arises when we are all taking pictures of the same subject, how do we make ours stand out? This is a question that has broader implications. Somebody decided, on a pretty arbitrary basis I suspect, that the world has 2.6 billion photographers in it based on the number of smart phone users. Now that is a loose definition of “Photographer” extended to anyone with a camera. I would argue for a narrower one.
A photographer is someone with a device, we will call it a camera, with a notion of what they want the image they are creating to look like. Deliberation rather than intent is the difference. Otherwise we are just a person with a camera. A skill set beyond pointing and shooting is required to be a photographer – and that is what we want to be.
There are still a lot of photographers, though. Put several of us together in front of a common subject and the differences are likely to be quite small. There isn’t a point where a certificate is issued declaring us a compentant photographer. There isn’t a set number of likes on Instagram, Facebook or Flickr that qualifies us thus.
And it is not about the kit we use. Another difference comes from coverting another lens, body, light modifier, whatever and making the most of what we have. Yes there are advantages to that but poor composition doesn’t look any better through Canon L glass than it does through a pinhole punched in tin foil and placed on a camera body cap (with a hole drilled in it).
But given similar skill levels, how do we make a difference?
Assuming we all know to take the photo from the subject’s eye level, avoid distracting backgrounds, get close to the subject so as to fill the frame with it, place the subject off centre and so on aren’t we going to get very similar if not identical images? Yes we are.
Therefore, we need to look for other ways to get that moment. Monochrome? Square crop? Composite? These are, for the most part, post production methods but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make part of the decision making process prior to pressing the shutter. Intent, vision, is a big part of making an image.
As individuals with a photogrpahic bent we are drawn to different things in a scene. We frame it, make part of it the focus of the scene, something that, at some level is unique to us, the time, the place and the subject. This uniqueness, this vision is something, that, as creators, we use as the soul, the spirit, that drew is to the scene in the first place.
To use this as a development tool we need to grow our creativity and creativity grows when we are forced to come up with solutions in the face of very limited resources. Such as shooting – people, animals, buildings, nature, shapes, colours, shadows, you name it – as part of a group.
The group is essentially working the same scene. In attempting to make it different, unique, ours, we have to work the angles, make that scarce, fleeting opportunity ours. If we are looking for one thing it’s the quality of light. Photography is all about the light.
Photography is also about doing and doing is the basis of improving, technically and artistically. More important is doing with a purpose. Get out and take some more pictures – it’s what we bought the camera for after all.
And as we are in a photographic club looking at other peoples work isn’t exactly difficult, but we live in a very visual world and to keep critically looking at the many images that are pushed at us daily requires a small but significant shift from being passive viewers to active, critical ones – I like this because …. that works because …. I would change ….
Revisiting our own work and trying a different crop, a vignette, monochrome, harder contrast, soft blur or any other variation is a variation of this, but gives us a better understanding of how we ourselves work and how we might change.
And last if not exactly least we need to take a few chances, even of they mostly turn out to be “Mistakes” because doing the above means that these mistakes are actually learning opportunities, if we let them be and continuous learning is the best way to develop as a photographer.
The Wriggly Road Show slithered, scuttled and strutted into town and a fascinating and interactive show it was. Snakes, lizards, crabs, albino rats and hedgehogs formed the cast and many thousands of frames were burned in a very enjoyable practical evening.
Perhaps the key to photographing animals, both wild and domesticated, lies in reconnaissance, having knowledge either direct or through an expert at hand. The latter was definitely the case in our session, given the exotic nature of the animals Wriggly Road Show brought with them. The welfare of the animals (and the photographers) is paramount and what may appear to be innocuous behaviour to the untrained eye could be stressful for the animal. There is a balance to be struck and if we believe the maxim that if your photograph isn’t good enough it’s because you are not close enough (Robert Capa) then there is an indicator to be had about choice of lens. However, that is a function of the environment that the animal is in and the size of the animal itself, as much as anything else.
Photographing domestic pets successfully is a different proposition to photographing large animals on a farm, is different from taking pictures of animals on safari (that’s the photographer being on safari rather than an alligator with a DSLR). Any way that you want to cut it animals are most likely going to be more work than your average subject. Cats and dogs may be the most frequently photographed animals (and certainly they take up a fair amount of space on Flickr, about 2.8m and 2.1m respectively) but they are also creatures with their own minds and curiosity.
I was shooting either in Handheld Twilight mode (Multi-frame at ISO 6400, wide fixed aperture, variable shutter speed) or aperture priority and auto ISO, plus some with fill in flash from the camera. Direct flash is rarely a good option, risking as it does red eye, and being generally unflattering, but needs must. I do not pretend I know what I was doing but the decisions were actually driven by the conditions.
Two positions were well lit, the others were more reliant on the ambient light. The animals were fairly static, none of them particularly quick even when mobile (having been fed), so moderately slow shutter speeds and moderate apertures with high ISO’s (1000 – 6400) did the job mainly with longer focal lengths. No chances to pan whilst shooting, no need to. From the look of most of the results I got I think I was concentrating more on the camera than the subject for some of them. That is sure sign of being short on practice. On the other hand it does not pay to be stingy on the number of frames that we commit to in pursuit of the shot we want.
Metering, especially the insects, where I was using fill in flash, was quite tricky and I found I was dialling in quite a bit of compensation. Fur is always interesting to get a reasonable meter reading from, tending to be either darker or lighter than the average for the environment the animal is being photographed. Spot or centre weighted metering, when metering from the camera, is probably preferred in these sorts of situations, but if shooting against backdrops it pays to be aware of how they will appear in the shot. Getting right at the point of taking the shot saves time in post production.
Focusing again depends on our subject, more specifically the speed it is moving across the frame, but also whether you are up close or standing back. Single shot, by and large is good enough close up because focus won’t shift that much and the shutter won’t fire till focus locks. A dog bouncing through the long grass is probably a candidate for Continuous AF and we live with the out of focus shots to get to the one or two for which the focus is bang on.
None of which will counter poor composition. The eyes have it, just as with people portraits. Viewers will seek the eyes first. We take our clues from the perceived expressions and the eyes are the windows of the soul, after all. Knowing the animal, having a rapport with it, are not necessarily the same things. Your pet snake will act differently to your pet dog, though both will have ways of attracting and directing their attention. It is also important not to stress the animal. The usual tools of composition can be applied, just getting there involves subjects who may be less predictable than a landscaper or a portrait photographer, or the yet-to-make-up-their-mind-ographer might be used to.
Here we can just scratch the surface, the tools we develop as we gain experience are mostly relevant, but as ever an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory (kilogram and kilo translations also apply) and the Wriggly Road Show certainly provided us with that.